In an early scene from A Taste of Honey, Jo (Rita Tushingham) washes her face inside a school locker room, her scrubbing intensifying the more she paws at her pores. Is she trying to eradicate the grime that resulted from a game of handball or wipe away the visage that she must irrevocably call her own? Such is one of the many deft metaphorical suggestions posited throughout director Tony Richardson’s canonical vision of Britain’s lower-class dwellings, where the slings and arrows of poverty are confronted with a humorous tone that speaks to people’s need for self-preservation.
Threatened by a landlord for her delinquent payments and gallivanting with men, Jo’s mother, Helen (Dora Bryan), packs up the family parakeet and hops on a bus with her daughter to head across town. The pair’s move allows Richardson a credit sequence that glimpses numerous monuments and neighborhoods across Manchester, all set to the hums of a nursery rhyme. The sequence is nearly identical to the opening of The 400 Blows, also about a young person whose malcontent leads to acts of rebellion, and the music that commences François Truffaut’s film is nearly as hopeful, if less explicit in its evocation of innocence. But the events that follow A Taste of Honey‘s opening prove that Richardson means his choice of music more as counterpoint—a suggestion that the joyful tunes of youth are merely wishful thinking in an era of rapidly degenerating domestic circumstances for many adolescents.
Shelagh Delaney’s adaptation of her own play finds an acid touch in Richardson’s direction, which treats Jo and Helen’s constant bickering as the anchor for their humanity. When confronted with a new place, Jo complains that the roof is leaking. “No it’s not,” Helen says with a drink in her hand while suffering a headache, “it’s condensation.” It seems that Helen’s optimistic declaration of fact shields her uncertainties about the new place. Delaney has a knack for conveying the deepest of frustrations through the tersest of dialogue, which is most evident in the characterization of Helen, whose new relationship with Peter (Robert Stephens) puts her on constant guard against Jo, who uses frequent sarcastic quips to protest her mother’s relationships with men. “I’m a cruel, wicked mother” is but one of Helen’s many deadpan retorts to Jo’s objections, and it’s to Bryan’s credit that Helen’s mothering remains a complicated force, jostling between the attentive and the negligent, but never with absolute certainty as to which. In this regard, Richardson’s bests Truffaut’s depiction of disinterested nurturing by insisting that Jo’s eventual problems, including an unwanted pregnancy, cannot be traced to a central root and certainly not simply to a mother’s toughness.
If there’s a pulse to Richardson’s kitchen-sink realism, it’s ironically the ebb and flow of the surrounding city and not the home, with bustling streets and secluded underpasses being the places where Jo can escape the confines of her mother’s imposed reality. It’s outside that she meets Jimmy (Paul Danquah), a black sailor who impregnates her, and Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), a closeted homosexual whose affection for Jo becomes a source of confusion and anxiety for both. The conversations between Jimmy and Jo reveal to one another (and to the viewer) how empathy is inextricable from cultural awareness. After Jo asks if his ancestors “came from Africa,” Jimmy responds in a teasing manner: “No, Liverpool. Were you expecting to meet a man whose father beat the tom-tom?” The film’s address of racism remains complicated by the complexities of language and how Jimmy uses his knowledge of difference, much like Jo’s sarcasm, as a means of self-protection.
Jo’s class status (a mean girl says Jo and Helen are “a pair of gypsies” early on) pushes her toward an embrace of the marginalized figures around her. In fact, it’s that very proximity that informs Jo’s worldview. “I think you’re wasting yourself,” Helen says. Jo shrugs: “So long as I don’t waste anyone else.” Jo’s regard for others comes at the expense of self-esteem, yet there’s nothing self-righteous or sacrificial about Jo’s position. By refusing to make Jo into a martyr or an ascetic symbol, Richardson implores the viewer to ask purely secular questions about a city’s relationship with gender, class, and race.
Though Jo’s actions outside the home gradually form her relationship with sex and art, A Taste of Honey doesn’t make light of Helen’s influence on her daughter, suggesting that progeny are destined, though perhaps short of doomed, to remain within eyeshot of parental guard. The most heartening display of this thread comes when Helen, almost off-handedly, asks Jo: “Why can’t you learn from my mistakes? It takes off your lifetime to learn from your own.” Helen’s sense of time, so lamentful and literal, cuts deep to Richardson’s depiction of Jo as a being bound by social condition. After all, there’s gloom to her stasis, of being unable to find an outlet, professional or otherwise, for her talents as an artist, but Richardson finally plays the struggle for what it may yield in Jo’s future instead of how it immediately shackles her. The title’s “taste” works to configure the beginning of something potentially sweeter to come rather than a resolutely bitter end.
Though A Taste of Honey is an essential title from the British New Cinema of the 1960s, this newly restored, 4K digital transfer of A Taste of Honey on Blu-ray marks the film's first Region 1 release in at least 20 years. Accordingly, it's all the more impressive that the film looks immaculate, with a remastering of the 35mm original sound negative yielding something close to audio-visual perfection. Depth of field, image sharpness, and grain has all been excellently preserved throughout, with the black-and-white image boasting appropriate and balanced contrast levels. Debris and dirt have been removed and scratches have been minimized. Criterion has given the monaural track an appropriate mix, with the dialogue and score remaining at roughly the same audio levels throughout. There are no instances of distortion or muffled audio. Overall, this is top-notch restoration work.
A rather comprehensive overview, which includes production histories, contemporary interviews, and scholarly assessments of the film’s placement within the larger scope of British cinema and culture. Actors Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin each provide delightful recollections of the film’s making; both actors were relative unknowns at the times, and it’s these roles that still draw the most comments and questions from audiences and fans today. A pair of archival interviews with Richardson and Delaney yield context for their involvement with the project from stage to screen, respectively. There’s also an interview with cinematographer Walter Lassally in which he explains the film’s intimate look. But the highlight is a talk by theater scholar Kate Dorney, who explains the film’s relationship to the stage play and how the British stage should be talked about alongside the nation’s filmmaking. Also included is Richardson’s Momma Don’t Allow, his 1956 short film which mostly chronicles the activities of a jazz club. Finally, there’s an essay by film critic Colin MacCabe on the film’s status as "kitchen-sink realism."
Less a syrupy coming-of-age tale than a tart with notes of sweetness, A Taste of Honey is an essential title in global cinema’s shift toward investigating the inner lives of quotidian folk.